"Brooklyn" is a story for anyone who has ever left home. It's a story for those who've waffled in indecision, for those forming their identities and forging their own paths. It's a story awash in muted pastel nostalgia about family and love and ambition and heritage and goodbyes. And it's one of the loveliest films to grace cinemas this year.
There's very little drama in this tale of a young woman, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who leaves her small Irish town and her mother and sister in the 1950s to find a life and career in New York.
That might make it feel to some like it's not a full movie. We've been trained to expect horrible things to happen to the people we're groomed to love and root for, especially in immigrant tales. Here things are just normal.
Eilis is cripplingly homesick at first, but she's not mistreated at work. She doesn't suffer extreme hardships or experience any prejudice for her background or gender. Her family doesn't disown her. Her boyfriend doesn't harbor dark secrets and the priest (Jim Broadbent) who gets her a job, a place to live, and a spot at a night college is actually just there to help and support.
If anything, "Brooklyn," based on Colm Tóibín's 2009 novel, challenges the viewer to focus on the heart by not having any such dramatic crutches. Eilis just has to work and figure out what she wants.
We meet her first at a dead end job as a shop girl in the tiny town of Enniscorthy, but she's already got a way out. Her sister has made an appeal to an Irish priest living in New York who's agreed to sponsor her trip across the Atlantic and set up a job and housing. Eilis knows it's the only way to get her life started even though she's heartbroken to leave.
Ronan, who has proven herself to be one of our most talented ingénues, makes Eilis a leading lady that we usually don't get to see. She's smart and ambitious, but still quiet and reflective. She's polite, but not a pushover. She's good, but not prudish. She's pretty, too, but in an understated way that makes most men overlook her. At a dance early on, one actually sneers in her direction.
Unlike the girls around her, Eilis is not obsessed or even the least bit concerned with finding a man. And yet one finds her — a small, sweet, slightly doltish but well-intentioned Italian-New Yorker plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) who she slowly and believably falls for. In the midst of their courtship, though, a tragedy brings her back to Ireland where she meets and begins a flirtation with the handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). He is nice, intelligent, and also smitten with Eilis.
Ads might have you believe that "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley with a lean, witty script by Nick Hornby, is entirely about which guy she'll choose. It is partially that, sure, but it's not the full truth.
The conflict emerges not just because there's suddenly a romantic prospect in Ireland. A fulfilling adult existence there seems suddenly possible. She starts helping a local office with their bookkeeping, she goes to the uncrowded beaches with her friends, and she finds comfort in being home.
In this way, each man represents a different life for Eilis. In Ireland, she has stability, comfort, history and space. In New York, she has uncharted possibilities and precious anonymity.
Neither path is wrong. That's the brilliance of this universal story. Some will surely be disappointed with her choice, but that's the thing — it's her choice. Despite everyone's good intentions, advice and expectations, it's one that only she can make.
What: "Brooklyn." Directed by John Crowley. A Fox Searchlight release
Star rating (out of four): •
With: Saoirse Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jessica Pare
MPAA rating: PG-13 for "a scene of sexuality and brief strong language"
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
At: Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)